Interview with Alex Prager

Below is an interview with Alex Prager which I did in 2012 for the photography blog I run, copypasteculture.

Alex Prager

Born in 1979, Alex Prager is a self-taught American photographer and filmmaker who lives and works in Los Angeles. Copypasteculture met up with her to talk about her show in Foam photography museum in Amsterdam.

Alex Prager - photo by Martijn Savenije, 2012

Martijn Savenije: Hi Alex, thank you for taking the time for an interview. How are you enjoying Amsterdam?
Alex Prager: It's great, it's a beautiful place. We [Prager, her studio manager and her sister Vanessa. - Ed.] went boating on the canals and we went cycling through the city. I even enjoyed it when it started to rain, we never get that in California.

Martijn Savenije: You're here for your show Compulsion in FOAM photography museum. Most of the images in the show are diptychs. They show disaster scenes from a distance and close-ups of eyes depicting emotions. Why'd you choose this combination?
Alex Prager: I had been working on the disaster scenes for about eight months and there was finally a moment when I decided to look at them all together. Just to really evaluate what I had done because when I was working on them I was really 'in it'. I wasn't thinking about how they were coming out, I was just thinking about making them and I was just really involved.
So it was really nice to step away for the first time and look at what the show was starting to form into. When I did that, I was really happy with the distant disconnected feeling that the scenes gave you. That's because they were very much inspired by the way the media sensationalizes accidents and disaster and things like that. So I needed to have that distance, but I felt that it was missing something really important to be able to connect to the emotional aspect of what was occurring.
But I didn't want it in the picture, so uhm, that's when I started experimenting with different close-ups of body parts. I tried different hand movements, mouths, feet and also tried close ups of eyes. When I looked at the proof sheets afterwards, the eyes were the most intense. So pairing them up together gave the emotional, human part of what was missing in the pictures.

From the series 'Compulsion' © Alex Prager
1:18 Silverlake Drive, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist, Michael Hoppen Gallery
and Yancey Richardson Gallery

MS: Where does the title Compulsion come from?
AP: Well, I was looking at a lot of Weegee and Enrique Metinides - also a crime scene photographer - and one thing that made them stand out from other crime scene photographers, besides their obvious talent for making crime scene photographs beautiful, was that they would include some of the spectators. And also the spectator's reactions.
Just the spectator example of wanting to look at a crime scene or wanting to read about it from a very safe distance, was very important to this work.
That's a big part of our world now; people willing to sign online petitions very easily but there's very little action being taken sometimes. So it's the compulsion to look from a safe distance.

If you build on your instinct, it's a scientific fact that your work will be unique, genuine and pure.

MS: Isn't that what a photographer usually does?
AP: Yeah *laughs*, but hopefully they do something with their observations.

MS: Like telling a story, for instance? What is the story we should get from Compulsion?
AP: Well, there's a lot of different stories. I think it's best to leave it up to the viewer, because I can only talk about why I decided to do Compulsion, and of course there's a lot of deeper meanings that go with the series. That is evident in the work, but the way I got into it, is when I first got into taking pictures I was always very attracted to wanting to show these darker subject matters and these uncomfortable things which exist in the world. I would exhibit these pictures that I was taking and no one would want to look at them. It was impossible for me to engage anyone to want to look at the photographs, so that's when I started working on the last three shows I had. Polyester, the Big Valley and Weekend. Because that was almost like a study of beauty and how beauty and color can mask darker and more uncomfortable subject matters.
I look at those series as a trilogy. So when I finished that trilogy I felt I knew enough about using beauty as a mask and that I could go talk about any subject matter that I wanted and still be able to engage the viewer.

From the series 'Compulsion' © Alex Prager
3:14pm, Pacific Ocean, 2012 © Alex Prager, Courtesy of the Artist, Michael Hoppen Gallery
and Yancey Richardson Gallery

MS: Is that where the nostalgic feeling of your photographs comes from?
AP: During the decades before the 90s, starting from the 40s, people were using a lot more color in design, fashion & make-up. Everything was a lot more theatrical-looking, so when I touch upon those older eras, all of that is like a playground for me. But in my natural affinity for all of that, I found that those bright colors, the textures and the staged scenes with the boxy cars add to that mask. Things looking so theatrical, cinematic and beautiful help saying anything within that pictures.

MS: You had your first show about six months after you started photography, right? Did you have trouble getting people to go and see those first shows?
AP: Oh, I was so not ready for a show. I was just taking pictures of whatever any student photographer would generally take pictures of. So people would go, but no one would want to buy anything.
When I was two years in, I realised that these darker subject matters were what interested me the most. So I'd have shows with that work and people would look at it and maybe I'd sell one print to a close friend of mine who just wanted to support me. Nobody was really connecting with this work, so I knew I'd really need to change something because the sole purpose of being an artist is to be able to communicate. I obviously wasn't communicating because no one was wanting to listen to what I was saying. I was struggling for a long time and was about seven years in when I learnt that lesson.

MS: Sounds like a valuable lesson. What is the biggest mistake an aspiring photographer can make?
AP: To not trust their instinct. I think trusting my instincts has led me to do the work I'm doing now. We're all unique, we're all born different, no one is going to think exactly like you. People have different experiences and have a unique track in their lifetime. There's no one that has lived exactly the same life, so we're automatically born with a gift of uniqueness. So if you just trust that and not try to copy other artists & photographers. If you build on your instinct, it's a scientific fact that your work will be unique, genuine and pure. But that's probably the hardest thing to do, just to be youself. It takes a lot of work to be able to trust yourself and listen to your instinct.

MS: How do you make sure you achieve that? How do you go about your work to make it unique?
AP: Well, I never have a plan when I'm starting off. I'll just start shooting and that's the most scary part of the process because after each show it's basically starting over from nothing. Everything I've learnt, everything I've worked on is gone and I need to start over with a blank canvas. After Compulsion, that's exactly where I'm at now, awesomely *laughs*
So, it's always very scary walking into the unknown and the only weapon you have are your instincts. So I just start shooting and I take a lot of really bad pictures for several months usually, until something starts to stand out. And even if it's not necessarily a good picture, I can feel that there's something in that directions which feels right. Then I just start following that. Sometimes that'll lead me to a dead end, and sometimes it doesn't. Like trial and a lot of error. I'm always working on stuff.

MS: Don't you ever get dry spells?
AP: Sure I do. Then I go to the beach, go on hikes in Griffith Park, cook and you know, just live life and always keep looking for things in the back of my mind. I'll look through my old notes, scour museums and artbooks. You know, all the normal things. And sometimes traveling can shake things up for me.

MS: So is there anything you're taking away from being here in Amsterdam?
AP: *laughs* Besides me wanting to move here, you mean?

Alex Prager's show Compulsion can be seen in FOAM Photography Museum until October 14th, 2012.

Interview with Rineke Dijkstra

Below is an interview I've done with Rineke Dijkstra for TrouwAmsterdam in 2012.

"A nightclub is a beautiful dream"

Tonight, March 29th 2012, Rineke Dijkstra will be back in a nightclub. This time not to make art, but to show it as part of Contemporary Art Club, Stedelijk @ Trouw / De Verdieping.

TrouwAmsterdam was curious about the story behind Dijkstra's The Buzz Club / Mysteryworld and asked copypasteculture's editor-in-chief to interview her. Fortunately, Dijkstra was kind enough to stop by TrouwAmsterdam on a sunny Wednesday afternoon to talk about her work, her relationship with the club-scene and the quest for authenticity.

Rineke Dijkstra (Photo by Daphne Channa Horn)

Plaid shirts and short dresses

"In 1994 I was in Liverpool to take pictures of school children. At that time I went out quite a lot and I had heard about the famous club Cream, at the time one of the most famous clubs of northern England," says Dijkstra. "So on the last evening my assistant and I went to visit the club. But the queue at the door was too long and we had no desire to wait. So then we asked the taxi driver if he could take us to another club. " And so Dijkstra and her assistant arrived at The Buzz Club.

Dijkstra soon became fascinated by the club. "The room was quite large and there was carpet everywhere. The boys all looked rather plain, with plaid shirts. But the girls were all dolled up with short flirty dresses. In those days, girls in the Netherlands wouldn't wear dresses when they went out. That was completely new to me. And it's fun for a photographer when something is surprising. "

The decision to photograph in the club was made quickly. "It actually came forth from the project I was doing at the school. I wanted to photograph children in their school uniform and then to see how they distinguish themselves from each other. In The Buzz Club you could see uniforms of another sort. The nightclub attire obviously was a dress code too."

Nevertheless, the specific atmosphere of the club was difficult to capture in a photograph. According to Dijkstra, there was more: "It was the overall atmosphere, but also the youthfulness of the visitors, the DJ behind the turntables people congratulating their birthday or directing someone to the exit - 'Sarah Palmer to the front door please'- and the liveliness of the whole." Video artist Gerald van der Kaap gives her the insight to capture it on video.

Van der Kaap, also known under the name 00-Kaap, was often VJ at the RoXY, Chemistry, Melkweg and Rauw nights at Club 11. With him was Dijkstra initially shoots videos in Vrieshuis Amerika and the RoXY. In retrospect those were trials to explore what video could do differently compared to photography.

"In Amsterdam, it was predominantly students or people from the academy of arts. In Liverpool it was different. The people at The Buzz Club were younger and many of them came from the working class. Don't forget that the economic situation in Liverpool has always been much worse than here, "explains Dijkstra from. "Even though England is close to us, it is very different. Society is different. Sometimes you have to take a step back to be able to observe those differences and let yourself be surprised by things that you do not know." That is why Dijkstra eventually went back to Liverpool with her video camera.

Forgetting the camera

"A club where it's dark and has light-effects, is like a beautiful dream. I took people from that environment into a little makeshift studio, which I was able to set up in in an unused space of the club. There they stood isolated in front of a white wall, lit by my bright lights. And in those conditions I actually wanted them to forget the camera. That is almost impossible."

Dijkstra had the challenge to create an uninhibited atmosphere. "I noticed that when I stood behind the camera, they would feel watched. So I just let the camera run and would focus my view on the monitor next to it. Then I would not look directly at them but they still had the feeling that I was involved," explains Dijkstra. "That connection is important: they needed my concentration because in the end, they were there for me. Meanwhile, my assistant would chat with their friends and so we created a very relaxed atmosphere. They could forget about the camera, but at the same time be aware of. The artwork balances on that divide."

Dijkstra doesn't appreciate staging a scene: "I believe in authenticity. I'm not a creator. If you have a rigid preconceived idea of how things should go, then it often doesn't work out. Something can only really happen when you open yourself up to it. I enjoy continuously adjusting my view and to relate myself to things. Trying to understand the someone, also in relation to myself and from a positive standpoint, that makes me happy. Then all of a sudden things start to happen which I could have never imagined myself."

A photo-face

That Buzz Club / Mysteryworld is shown at Trouw, Dijkstra finds quite special: "It's never been shown in a club before. What I like is that can be seen from the dance floor, but if you'd like to hear the sound, you'll have to go into the smoking area. That is quite appropriate because in the video almost everyone is smoking."
Dijkstra continues: "My videos look best in an installation. You can watch it at home on your computer, but that is very different than when view it as a large projection. I think it's important how the viewer is able to relate to to the people portrayed. You should almost feel that you can walk around it, that it has depth. That has a very different impact. "

What that impact should be, is not bound in a single representation. "I like to leave the images open imagination and interpretation. Film is photography, but with added movement and sound. Resultantly, you can show different things. I want to lift it to a level where the work becomes a metaphor, an icon for a movement or an era."

Dijkstra would like to show that everyone is different, that everyone is unique. "Quite often it's captured in a posture, in a glance. I am looking for the essence of what make a person a person. It is hard to capture because people always like to put on a photo-face. You know, everybody looks at you the entire day without resulting in inhibition. However, whenever you feel the presence of a camera, you tend to portray yourself differently from who you are in essence. Suddenly you become aware of yourself. While it'd be beautiful if people could relax and just be themselves, like when they do not really think about it."

Text has previously been published on TrouwAmsterdam's blog. All work copyright Rineke Dijkstra unless otherwise stated.